You stride through a bustling conference hall, alive with excited chats and enthusiastic handshakes. In your pocket, a stack of freshly printed business cards. In your head, a well-rehearsed elevator pitch. You’re confident and poised, ready to network.
As you cruise, you notice only small groups engaged in salesy banter. You spot someone in a corner alone. Dang it, they’re on their phone. Then someone walks by you…maybe…nope, they’re headed to the bathroom. Soon a quiet panic sets in. You find no openings. You feel isolated, alone within the crowd. The clusters of exhibitors, speakers and attendees appear as guarded fortresses, impervious to any networking siege. The walls grow higher. That quiet panic is now a raucous party of self-doubt and insecurity. You bolt to a shadowy corner of the room. Finding a safe harbor, you whip out your phone and pretend to scroll.
Anyone who’s ever attended an expo or tradeshow is familiar with this situation. It’s a universal experience, and one that betrays a paradox: humans are built for social interaction but find it incredibly hard to meet new people. However, introductions aren’t an irrational phobia. Meeting new people is full of unknowns. As children, we’re taught “Don’t talk to strangers”, only to grow up and realize it’s essential to doing business, making friends, and finding mates.
Introductions require an excuse to command someone’s attention. Icebreakers are simply excuses we’ve deemed “acceptable” for presuming someone wants to talk to us. We all know when someone crosses a line, and it’s this fear of transgression that, in large part, fuels our own anxiety towards meeting new people. We don’t want to be the person who interrupts, shares too much or comes off as “creepy”. But with preparation and practice, you can learn how to construct and deploy effective convo starters to super charge your next networking event. Here are 5 icebreaker tips to increase your networking success at your next tradeshow.
1. Choose Universal Topics
Effective icebreakers reflect common experiences. That’s why many people use sports or the weather to form a fast connection. But convo starters don’t have to reflect the human experience. In fact, they can be too broad. Something like “How ‘bout this weather?” would probably seem too general for a group gathered specifically to do business (unless that business is meteorology).
Instead, make your topics universally specific to the situation. With respect to an expo or tradeshow, a more specific “universal” topic would be something that many (but only) show attendees experienced. (“Did you enjoy the awards dinner last night?”). Other examples include:
- “Who do you work for?”
- “What industry are you in?”
- “Can you recommend any good sessions to attend?”
- “What’s your favorite part of the show so far?”
- “Have you been to the Expo before?”
- “Did you see X Company’s demonstration?”
Memorize four to six of these icebreakers and have them ready to go. You’ll discover more as the show goes on and be able to fine tune them to the situation.
Pro Tip: Eat lunch in the commons area of the tradeshow venue. Many will congregate here, and lunch is a perfect opportunity to socialize.
2. Keep Questions Person-Centered and Open-Ended
People enjoy talking about themselves, so your icebreakers should focus on the person or group. The example open questions above are person-centric, while not overstepping the line of being “too personal”. If you tell a story or anecdote, it should serve the purposes of the group and add value to the group’s discussion, not show how smart you are.
In general, you’ll get further with questions that elicit personal opinions (“What’s your favorite part of the show so far?”) rather than simple facts (“Who do you work for?”). That’s because opinions leave more room for commentary.
In general, design your questions to be open-ended. For example: “Who do you work for?” will get you less information than “Is your company exhibiting at the Show this year?” Even subtle changes in how you phrase the same question can have big impacts. Consider these two questions:
- “Is this your first time at the Expo?”
- “Have you been to the Expo before?”
While both are asking the same basic question, you will likely get two different answers. While # 1 may get you a simple “yes” or “no” response, the answer to # 2 will usually be longer and more in-depth. That’s because the addition of the phrase “before” references a past event. The reference unconsciously prompts the listener to be more descriptive or to tell a story of past events. The longer you can keep the convo started, the better your chances at making a deeper connection.
3. Learn to Infiltrate Small Groups
It’s difficult joining small groups where people are already engaged in conversations. Many of us feel injecting ourselves into the group is too intrusive or creepy. Much of this exclusionary vibe comes from the fact that people in groups tend to stand in a circular formation. The shape itself creates a boundary that seems to warn, “Do not enter.” However, the standard circular formation is a practical construction that ensures everyone inside can make eye contact. So, ironically, the circle is actually an attempt at inclusion. We do well to remember this fact, whether we are on the inside or outside.
Here are a few hacks for breaking into a group circle:
- Start a convo with a group member, preferable one who seems bored. Then slowly work your way into the circle, or start a new one.
- Look for a group with an odd number of people. It ensures there’s at least one person available for a chat.
- Get in early. Locate a group that’s just starting to form.
- At an after part event, wait for a drink server to come by for deliveries or to pick up empties. This usually breaks the circle momentarily. Use the opportunity to gain closer proximity.
- Listen and wait until you can add something valuable and relevant. Make sure it’s substantial, but not too domineering. Short comments are easily acknowledged then ignored.
- Smile and appear generally upbeat and approachable yourself.
- Address the group. Deploy an interesting anecdote, ask an open-ended question, or relate a personal story. Anything interesting, educational or relevant will be well received.
Keep in mind, some groups are simply more “open” and sociable. The more familiar the members are with one another, the more they tend to keep things tight. To identify closed groups, look for body language signals. Friends or colleagues will tend to stand closer to one another, forming a tighter circle. These can be difficult to break. Other groups may be in a serious conversation and aren’t interested in being “social”. Look for signals like serious looks, crossed arms, or direct face-to-face discussions. Such closed groups should be obvious. Approach with caution.
4. Flattery is Your Friend
Flattery gets you everywhere when it comes to meeting people. Everyone is instantly receptive to praise, so flattery is an easy win for icebreakers. Most folks who are “famous” in your industry come to conferences expecting a bit of approbation—so, give it to them! You’re likely not annoying them, especially if they’re alone. In these cases, it’s acceptable to begin with a comment about yourself (“I enjoy reading your blog articles on smart building tech.”) In this case, you’re leading with an “I” statement, which may seem to shift the focus off the other person, but the compliment is actually putting all the attention on them.
5. Introduce Yourself Online Before the Tradeshow
There are plenty of to-dos on the pre-show checklist, from identifying your target audience to following groups on social media. But make sure online preliminary introductions is one task you check off. Connect with people on LinkedIn, Facebook and Instagram. Like their pages and follow their accounts. It’s easier to “meet” someone in person if they’ve already “accepted” you with a connect request. So, use that digital handshake to your advantage.
Also, use your online accounts to announce you’ll be attending. Ask if anyone else is planning on going. Post to your trade groups and connections list. Follow up with offers to meet for coffee or lunch. You’ll likely make new connections. Announcing your plans to attend is an effective way to show your enthusiasm and openness to networking, and it will make real-life introductions much easier.
Like any skill, conference networking takes practice. There’s no substitute for hard work. Experience will hone your skills at picking up on body language signals, tone of voice, and group dynamics. You’ll fine tune your anecdotes, perfect your presentation. With these skills, you can identify better networking prospects and command the room.